Heritage and accountability

February 18,2019

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It has taken me a month to understand the wisdom of not maintaining clean toilets at the fabulous Taxila Museum. Yes, it may be a great inconvenience to a Buddhist pilgrim who might have travelled thousands of kilometres to see some of the great relics or pray at the ancient stupas. A visit to these toilets may also spoil the day of a researcher who might have crossed a continent to witness the wonders of the Silk Road civilisation. However, a clean toilet or well-guarded archaeological site may prove too expensive for the rector of the museum.

Let me take you on a short journey before returning to this point. Taxila was one of the most important cities on the Silk Road. It witnessed a fusion of Silk Road civilisations, spanning from China to Greece before getting annihilated on the hands of the White Hun barbaric hordes in the 5th century. Taxila is so close to Pakistan’s capital that the country might have proudly used the name of this ancient city rather than coining a new name when the capital was relocated. Taxila’s rich archaeological sites are spread over miles as it was not one but three cities, built in succession, and a number of religious complexes built around these cities.

The Gandhara sites, of which Taxila is a part, are spread over hundreds of kilometres, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Facing neglect from the state and in the hands of departments perennially starved of resources, these sites have attracted grave robbers who excavate these ruins illegally to plunder artefacts in order to sell them to collectors abroad.

We have not even begun to count how much loss has already been incurred. Once relocated, the artefacts lose their archaeological context. As a result, historical and anthropological information is destroyed. Such looting results in the loss of priceless memory and turns artistic creations into decorations, separated from their historical context – and ultimately from all meaning.

This is a situation that our good Samaritan Dr Adbul Samad (Tamgha-e-Imtiaz), director of archaeology and museums for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), tried to change and, as a result of which, is now a guest of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). On February 14, NAB arrested Dr Samad and on the next day an accountability court in Peshawar remanded him in NAB’ custody for 10 days in a case of misuse of authority while making appointments of class-IV employees at different archaeological sites.

Ismail Khan, a senior Peshawar-based journalist tweeted that “NAB brought the only PhD in Sanskrit, in Asia from Germany, a Fulbright scholar and a gold medallist in archaeology, Dr Samad, to court for employing low paid workers to ward off illegal excavations. What a shame! Why should anybody serve here!” In another tweet, he added that, “he was brought in handcuffs. He would have been a free bird, had he let the plunderers loot archaeological sites.”

Responding to the post, the prime minister tweeted:”The NAB chairman should take action against those who are responsible for this disgraceful act.”

Dr Samad is alleged to have made over 90 appointments of staffers at different archaeological sites in violation of the prescribed rules. There are no accusations of corruption against him. It appears that he took his job too seriously and tried to protect these sites which have been under serious threat for some time. The office in charge of the Taxila Museum might have committed a similar crime if he had employed sweepers in violations of rules. I was told that the museum had not been sanctioned the staff it needed, therefore the toilet was in such a situation.

As a visitor to archaeological sites in KP, I have seen visible improvement in the security and maintenance of these sites since their charge was handed to the province. Only last month, I tried to enquire about theft at Gandhara sites. Lower-ranking staff at the sites assured me that there was no question of theft as good arrangements had been made to guard these places. I expressed my appreciation via social media for the efforts made by the KP government.

The Dr Samad incident raises at least three important questions that we need to debate. How much do we value our heritage? How much value do we place on scholars and knowledge? And finally why are we intent on using 19th century detention techniques for investigation when there is hardly any chance that the accused can abscond?

If we had any idea of the national loss, we would be willing to put at least 900 guards at archaeological sites in KP. There is hardly any sign that Pakistan as a state or most of its educated people value their priceless heritage. Hardly any school-going, or even college-going, student will be able to tell you that s/he belongs to one of the areas where human civilisation was born. Hardly anyone will be willing to link their identity to these archaeological sites and trace the visible continuity of their heritage.

Some people link this neglect to Pakistan’s overemphasis on Islamic heritage. That may be true only partially. Muslim-era buildings face equal neglect. Most Mughal-era monuments carry sings of public vandalism and official neglect. The disrespect show to these monuments while building the Orange Line train in Lahore was a glaring example of this attitude. We are fast losing our material heritage to plunder and neglect. Many historical sites have been dismantled only to reuse centuries-old bricks or to occupy the land.

Does Pakistani society or state place any value on scholarship or scholars? A society that does not value knowledge or scholars cannot be a knowledge-based society and, as a result, cannot prosper in the 21st century. If knowledge is not seen as capital and if there is no prestige attached to scholarship, then not many people will find it attractive to burn the midnight oil in pursuit of knowledge.

The way law-enforcement agencies treat scholars is one manifestation of this attitude. We have seen retired teachers and scholars being humiliated by law enforcers and we have seen their handcuffed dead bodies shifted from prisons to hospitals.

Why are Pakistan’s law enforcers using the 19th-century practice of arresting almost everyone accused of a crime? Perhaps, it made sense for a time when it was easy for people to abscond as they lacked identities and means of communication were rare. In today’s world, it is very hard for an accused to find refuge in any part of the world.

This practice has created a logjam in our system of justice. The police are unwilling to register an FIR because the next logical step for them is to make arrests even when such arrests are not needed for investigation. Our prisons are choking with such accused and many languish in inhuman conditions because they cannot afford the cost of justice.

In all probability, the employees hired by Dr Samad will go home and it may be good for Taxila Museum which has just opened a new gallery showcasing artefacts recovered from smugglers. Thank God, Pakistan Customs is a well-paid department.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhanyahoo.com

Twitter: zaighamkhan


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